Oscar Ross of Lords of Fuzz on the importance of his lyrics saying something significant
Photo courtesy Oscar Ross
Lords of Fuzz thundered into being from a tough time in Oscar Ross' life. He'd recently gotten divorced and moved to Denver from Texas and decided to pursue music as an outlet. After numerous line-up changes, and three albums, Lords of Fuzz are releasing their most fully-realized record to date, Broken Bottles and Knives, this Saturday at 3 Kings Tavern. Part stoner rock, part heavy psychedelia, it is the kind of rock and roll album that makes no apologies for excesses and doesn't try to fit into a trendy genre. It's heavy and raw but informed by an underlying sense of melody. We recently spoke with Ross about why he started his own studio, the evolution of the band and how the drug cartel war in northern Mexico informed one of the songs on the new record.
Westword: You have a fairly professional home studio. What is it you're trying to do with that?
Oscar Ross: One of the things I'm trying to do is this label called Sailor Records. The Lords of Fuzz are on it, and so are the Amputators. I'm just learning about labels. I don't know much, and obviously I've never run one, but with the studio, I have an opportunity to help bands make really good records.
Why did you want to have your own studio?
I like making records. Obviously I love playing -- it's cathartic, and there's nothing like playing live, but I really love making albums. Even if I'm on the outside, like when Nick Sullivan was recording the Amputators here, I was learning about mike placement, different amps and different guitars. I just find that stuff fascinating. You can spend your entire life learning that and you'll never know everything.
It's more of a relaxed atmosphere. I feel more comfortable. I feel like I can lose myself more easily here than in a professional studio. I can also use it any time instead of setting aside a weekend and have to be right on right then. Most bands don't have any money but here you can come and crash and get up in the morning and record and take your time with it. As long as you bring your own engineer in and pay your engineer, you can use it as much as you want. Obviously I've got to know you and I won't let just anyone in the house.
Why did you call your label Sailor Records?
It's partly related to that David Lynch movie Wild At Heart with Nicolas Cage. His character is named Sailor. That's one of my favorite movies. I think the intensity of it appeals to me. There's some depression in it, some evil and darkness, but, at the end, some bright light. I think David Lynch does a really good job of working with those elements.
You grew up in Carlsbad, New Mexico. What was it like growing up there?
It's just north of El Paso, so I think growing up, there were maybe one or two black kids, but the huge majority of the kids were Mexican. In fact my stepmom is Mexican. So there was a huge influence from Mexican culture. It was great, though it's pretty rough down there. There's a bizarre mixture of Mexican American and Native American. It's hardcore. As a white kid, I always felt like I was in the minority. I don't know if I can say I really was, but it felt harder to fit in in some ways -- more of a cultural thing.
And now, with the whole drug war -- in fact one of our songs, "Enfrentamiento," is about the Mexican drug war -- it's a mess and it's dangerous. The song was originally called "Mexican Showdown." I was told that "enfrentamiento" meant "showdown," so we ended up changing the name of the song. A lot of my lyrics aren't literal; they're more about a feeling or an emotion or more general.
The second half of the song is the Lord's Prayer. In my mind, you have this serious problem where these people are literally killing each other, yet they're very religious. Catholicism is huge down there. It's this bizarre contrast of being so devoted to God, but they're massacring each other. My dad works in the oilfields down there, and he's been run off the road a couple of times, and he's feared for his life. You don't hear a lot about it, but it's pretty rough down there.
Yeah, that whole thing with Los Zetas beheading members of rival cartels on video? Or the Matamoros incident in 1989? It's incredible, terrible stuff that should never happen.
Can you imagine if that happened in the U.S.? It's just right across from El Paso, and it's unbelievable that stuff is happening over there. It's very sad. It doesn't sound like it's getting a lot better.
You went to college in Austin?
Yeah, I went to the University of Texas and had never been to Austin before my first day of going there to live. I grew up hating Texas and then became a Texan and lived there for many years. Austin's a cool place.
You grew up playing guitar, right?
Yes, but it was very basic, simple chord stuff, acoustic stuff. I never had an amp. I played a lot of old school country like Merle Haggard and Don Williams. That's what my dad listened to. In college and [graduate] school, I started doing open mikes and really started writing music at that point, and I've been doing it ever since.
When I moved to Denver, I ended up getting a divorce, and I put up an ad on Craigslist. I basically just asked a guy to come over to play bongos or bring just a snare. So this guy, Tony Chadwick, you know, Po' Boy Drums, responds, and we talk, and he says, "I'll be over Wednesday." I'm on the porch playing my acoustic, and he shows up at my house, and he has a six piece kit. He sets it up, and I still didn't have an electric guitar, but I had this little Fender concert amp. So I plugged in, and we played for like two hours, and it was a lot of fun. He's a very good guy, but I think with the shift in musical styles, he [decided to focus more on his drum business.]
The following weekend, I play this golf tournament in Chicago, and there's an auction and one the items was an autographed Buddy Guy guitar, and it was a Strat. I ended up buying it.The next week Tony shows up with another guitarist and a bass player, and that's when the band started maybe about seven years ago.
So why did you want to start a band right after your divorce? Though that does sound like something anyone artistically-inclined should do.
Music was just kind of my outlet. It's what kept me sane. I don't know how many line-up changes I've had. It was more just for fun, and I wanted to get on stage, and we tried not to take ourselves too seriously, and we were always kind of a shitty band, really. But it was just for fun.
I think we're on our fifth drummer, fourth or fifth bass player. Jonny Leeroy is probably our third guitarist, and he's been in the band now five years. He's awesome. I'd say Jonny's probably my best friend. He helped build all this, and he's a master with sound. He can play banjo, digeridoo, trumpet -- he's one of those guys that can play tons of instruments. He's been in the band the longest.
I met him through one of our bass players, Pablo. They were high school buddies in Virginia, and he came out to go snowboarding, and he brought his guitar. We jammed one night, and he said he was going to move out here. It's been much more serious a band since he's been in it. He defines what the Fuzz has become on the guitar side of things.
Who came up with the name?
That was me. We were originally called the HeBGB's. I had a dream and thought, "Aw, man, that gave me the heebie jeebies." I thought since we're just playing, I presented the name to the band. Everybody was excited about it, and I got some t-shirts made with the name on it. Three weeks later the bass player comes up to me, he'd just done a plumbing job in Boulder, "Dude, I just did this job with this guy and he says he's in this band called the Hee Bee Jee Bees." So we had to change our name.
Our first show was coming up, and it was at Cricket on the Hill. We played under a completely different name, but it was the name of a U2 song. But I realized we couldn't play under that name. I had a dream where we were all [clothed like the nobility] like a king, a queen and a joker. So I woke up the next morning, and I liked the word "fuzz" and thought about combining it with "lords" as in my dream.
The first three albums we recorded as a band we did at Uneven Studio with Bryan Feuchtinger. For that last album we did with him, we go over to record and our drummer is struggling with laying down the tracks. We spent all day. Bryan actually played the drums and laid down all six drums in a day. The fact that we have him playing drums on one of our album is awesome.
Broken Bottles and Knives we recorded here at the house. This guy Pete deBoer produced it. He was an engineer in New York City for a long time. He's top notch. He hooked us up with Joe Gastwirt for mastering who did stuff for 311, Neil Young and Tom Petty. Just to get a guy like that to master our album in L.A. was an unbelievable experience. Pete made that happen.
Your vocals on the new album sound raw, like you're on the edge a little.
I think about that lot. That was one of the great things about Pete. We analyzed the vocals and the lyrics. I'd never done that on an album before. I'm an average, at best, rhythm guitarist, but I really like to put time into vocals. When I listen to music, I love vocals and love to hear what they're saying.
When you're writing lyrics, and you're putting them on an album, you better say something significant. It had better come from deep down inside. I'm not sure where the intensity comes from. It feels good. That's what a lot of those songs are about. Just the battle of life and staying happy and not getting beat down. My entire soul is in that album. I thought about those lyrics a lot.